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The SDA Church–Structurally Divided Along Racial Lines I

May 16, 2006

In a recent email circular doing the rounds in South Africa, Geoff Garne states, “I cannot understand why separate racial and linguistic groups in USA are permitted to operate their own non-territorial organizations and even operate their own educational facilities, whereas in South Africa separate Conferences for a minority group is not permissable. That is beyond my comprehension….”

In the same email, Gerhard van Wyk asks, “Is the General Conference protecting minority rights in the USA, but majority rights in South Africa?”

Similarly, Max Webster: “Think also of the hypocrisy of the church that will allow regional (black) conferences in the USA but seeks to destroy so-called white conferences in South Africa on the basis of their being a legacy of apartheid, which is not true. Separate governance of the church in South Africa began before apartheid, and one of the aims was to develop black leadership.”

Valid questions!

I’ll begin by discussing the history of the SDA Church structure in South Africa:

Currently, all but two conferences in the Southern African Union of the SDA Church http://www.adventist.org.za are racially integrated–the Transvaal Conference–which is predominately White, and the Trans-Oranje Conference–which is predominately Black. In South Africa, racially divided conferences date back to 1920 when under the newly formed African Division, the SDA Church’s organizational structure was divided at union level into the South African Union Conference–caring for White conferences–and the Southern Union Mission–caring for Black Missions. In 1922, the church was structurally merged at all levels. However, in 1927, racially separate conferences were revived under a single union–a situation that continued until 1953.

“Since 1953 the South African Union has functioned in two parts–Group I and Group II–meeting separately in general, but jointly for the transaction of certain business. Using this as a foundation, the Union administration has now been re-organized into two parts, Group I and Group II. In Group I are the four conferences for the European and coloured membership, The Indian Mission, and the South West Africa Field….Group II comprises the mission fields and institutions serving the African population.” (South African Division Outlook, March 15, 1961, 8.) Read it here.

In 1965, the separate “groups” were recognised as separate unions–the South African Union Conference–caring for the White, Coloured, and Indian conferences and fields–and the Southern Union Mission–caring for Black fields. This situation continued until December 1991 when the South African Union Conference and the Southern Union merged to form the Southern African Union Conference. Mergers at local conference level then took place until the present structure emerged. (On March 26, 2006, a bid to unite the remaining two conferences–the Transvaal and the Trans-Oranje conferences failed.)

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7 comments

  1. the love of money,power and greed will keep those who
    are worldly bound jailed in their rule but surely jesus is coming


  2. [...] have previously blogged on Race and Seventh-day Adventism in South Africa: here, here, here and [...]


  3. Regarding black and white conferences in the USA I reckon it’s to do with white SDA’s not wanting to worship with blacks. Friends who’ve visted the states say they are politely told on entering a “white” SDA church that the black church is down the road.


  4. >Friends who’ve visted the states say they are politely told on entering a “white” SDA church that the black church is down the road.

    Which church told them that? In what state? Is there a reason why the particulars are missing? In my hometown church (St. Paul, MN) we have blacks. whites and Hmong in attendance with no problem whatsoever.


  5. What is really causing this division yet we sing ” though we are many we are one body in Christ? Do we think if we cant co-worship as one conference here on earth we will be able in Heaven? if all is centred on race, then we only have the remnant message yet we not be the remnant pple.


  6. all these divided chuches if they dont repent are not serving Jesus and surely are hellbound. Jesus is no divided. If one thinks they will enter heaven with such attitude they are very arrogant and decieved and the SA conferences should grow up and stop comparing with wats happening in the States, they should shut up and reform according to the reproof given to them!!! What as become of the remnant church, let them not fool themselves no heaven will recieve such nonsense!!!instead of fighting over such simple issues we should be focusing on the mission of the church!!


  7. A famous American chef while visiting South African remarked that the black and white South Africans mingled more after Apartheid than Americans do so many years after slavery was abolished. America itself is very racially divided except along the lines of strides in Public Office, and in certain legislation. The Black Farmers Association supported a recent lawsuit against the USDA for recent discrimination against blacks that was found to be true at the highest legal levels. Why is this still occurring? Because America was founded on racial discrimination against firstly Native Americans, and later Blacks and now Hispanics. This is the culture of America, first it was to take lands and conquer a people to do so, then it was to subjugate an ethnic group to provide free labor and sometimes sexual slavery, and now it is to preserve control of country by the white minority. Since the SDA Church was birthed out of this history it has the same culture within it’s practices. And yes any visit of a large city in the USA and you will see ethnically divided neighborhoods. And yes in 1981 while visiting a Church on the Andrews University Campus, I was told to go down the road to the black or Spanish Church. They were not sure of my ethnicity, just that I could not be white. Truth be told my mother has blue eyes and blonde hair, but in America you are judged by appearances. Whites dominate most Conferences, and more money goes to white needs in the Churches, such as Bible Workers serving in White Churches rather than Hispanic Churches in the same Conference like in WA state. That is why the only way to grow missions and reserve funding to minority groups in America is to have minority Conferences. And because the blacks in America have led the way for such freedom to occur, this should happen worldwide wherever such discrimination occurs. However maybe South Africa is best to lead the way for blacks and whites to have the same funding and opportunities and respect, so that another America does not occur, which is separate from the message of the Gospel….”all the world.” Also the SDA Church like other American Churches have in the past robbed nations of their cultural dress and lifestyle promoting American clothing and lifestyle. That is why local Conferences should preserve their culture and heritage from becoming something else that is not really biblical in practice. I do not foresee American Advent ism changing in the near future to embrace the biblical ideologies on race. Or see true diversity at Conference, Division, or General Conference level, because of a reflection of social practice in America.



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